Note: This is a second post in the Gone Too Soon blogathon hosted by Comet Over Hollywood. After writing about Carole Landis, I decided to write an extra blogathon post on one of my favorite actresses, Gail Russell. I was inspired to do so after seeing her excellent performance in THE TATTERED DRESS (1957) last night.
Gail Russell was one of the most hauntingly beautiful women ever to appear in the movies. She was also a sensitive actress who was used to great effect in some wonderful movies. Unfortunately that touching sensitivity was a factor offscreen as well; Russell waged a long battle against shyness and stage fright. She "steadied her nerves" with alcohol, leading to a decline in her appearance and an early death at the age of 36.
Gail Russell was born in Chicago on September 21, 1924. Her family moved to California and in her late teens she signed with Paramount Pictures. She appeared in her first film, the programmer HENRY ALDRICH GETS GLAMOUR (1943), at the age of 18.
Russell's star rose quickly; after a small role in LADY IN THE DARK (1944) she was given the plum role of Stella in the classic "haunted house" thriller THE UNINVITED (1944). Stella is gently romanced by a dashing older man (Ray Milland) who tries to understand the odd connection between Stella and the spooky home he's recently purchased.
The score for THE UNINVITED introduced a song named for Russell's character which became an American standard, the haunting "Stella By Starlight."
Russell's ethereal beauty was used to good effect in additional films with an otherwordly quality, including THE UNSEEN (1945) with Joel McCrea, NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948) with John Lund and Edward G. Robinson, and WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1948) with John Wayne.
Russell was well matched with Alan Ladd in SALTY O'ROURKE (1945) and CALCUTTA (1947), and she appeared opposite John Payne in EL PASO (1949) and CAPTAIN CHINA (1950).
THE BACHELOR'S DAUGHTERS (1946) was a particularly well-made and original romantic comedy-drama, and MOONRISE (1948) is a very highly regarded film noir which also starred Dane Clark.
ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947), in which Russell and John Wayne played the title roles. Russell's Penny is a Quaker girl who is disarmingly direct about her feelings for John Wayne's gunslinger, and in due course he can't stop from falling in love with the lovely Penny.
After AIR CADET (1951) Russell's career hit the skids due to her problems with alcohol. She was off the screen for several years when her good friend John Wayne invited her to appear in a Randolph Scott Western he was producing. The film happened to be SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956), now recognized as one of several classics made by Scott with director Budd Boetticher.
THE TATTERED DRESS (1957). A scene where she breaks down under cross-examination by Jeff Chandler showed just how talented an actress Russell was.
Sadly, Russell appeared in only two more films, NO PLACE TO LAND (1958) and THE SILENT CALL (1961), as well as a couple of TV appearances. She died in Los Angeles on August 27, 1961, due to alcohol-related causes.
Thanks to TCM and a very kind friend, I have all of Russell's films, and I look forward to seeing several more of her movies in the future, as well as revisiting favorites. Although Russell's life was too short, her fine work lives on.
March 23 Update: An adapted version of this post is now available at MovieFanFare.
October 2013 Update: Here are additional reviews of Gail Russell films, LADY IN THE DARK (1944), MOONRISE (1948), and THE LAWLESS (1950).